On a field by a river, two armies face each other. Fathers face their sons, brothers are looking for each other's faces, so they can avoid each other in battle. This battle will be the end of a world, everybody knows that. The sides are too well matched, the stakes are too high.
But as the soldiers sweat in the rising sun, under a pavilion between the two lines, their leaders are talking. Working out a peace. The King will acknowledge his bastard son, concede his right to inherit the crown. The son will foreswear his war against his father.
But as the two men turn to go to their armies, to send them home, a snake hisses in the meadow. A warrior draws his sword. It flashes in the sun. The other side sees it, and they draw theirs, shouting betrayal. In the battle, the King kills his son with his legendary sword; the son mortally wounds the father.
It is the end of the world. Afterwards, the foreigners come. The land changes its name, its gods, its language.
I was there. I saw it. You were there, too, in dreams. It's in the angles of roofs, the arches of tall buildings. It's in the words we breathe. It's the destruction of Britain. It is the last battle, the Mort d'Arthur. It is the story of Camlann.
Maybe you don't know the whole story. You know how Arthur was born. King Uther wanted Duke Gwrchlas's wife Ygraine. With magic and force, he killed the Duke and took his wife.
Ygraine was no fool. She knew what tomcats do to a litter of kittens. She had a daughter, Morgan. She sent her far away, to Ireland, where her people were from.
Nobody really knows what Morgan learned there, unless maybe it's Merlin, and he's shut up in a stone. But the women of her people were witches. She already had the words. Ygraine used to sing Irish spells to her as lullabies. She had the will -- rage is a form of will. She only needed to awaken.
They sent for her when Uther finally died. When her boat arrived at Tintagel, the Saxons had the place surrounded.
Tintagel is a rock that juts out into the sea, that's why it's so easy to defend. They say that the land used to go out another five leagues, long before men came. At any rate, when the Saxons rushed the walls, that land was there again, and there were giant warriors with bronze axes lining the walls. Oh, they ran. It took them an hour for those illusions to fade away. They came back at dawn, mad as hell.
That's when we showed up, about a hundred cavalry, led by this young British war leader. We hit them from behind, they never saw us coming.
After the battle, Morgan fell into his arms, and they made love.
Our leader was Arthur. Her half brother. His father had murdered hers. But it was too late. They were in love.
Now in the old days, this is how it would have been. He would have married her, half-sister or no. In the old races, Kings married their sisters sometimes. Maybe that's why they died out. We British used to do that, too, before the Christians got us to stop it. He would have married her, and they would have had children, and the people would have loved them.
But times were changing. Uther had talked a lot about bringing back the Roman virtues, but he was a loudmouth, and everyone knew it. But Arthur was going to do it. He was going to replace all that barbarian pride, anger, revenge -- and mercy -- with justice.
But he couldn't do it if he started out by marrying his sister, could he? Oh, people would have cut him some slack. But then they'd expect him to cut them some slack. He wanted them to have to live up to his standard. That was how he thought. It's what made him a great king, I'm sure of that.
But he didn't want to tell her. She already had an excellent reason to hate him. So he made her a lot of promises and he convinced himself he would keep them. I remember how much it hurt him to do that. And I remember how proud he was he was doing it anyway.
I thought he was giving up a whole world. He could never see the trees for the forest.
You know how he rescued Leodegrance, and married his daughter Guenevere. She was a strange one. She was out of her time. Beautiful, but like a well-balanced dagger. Not quite like a woman. A thousand years later, all the rich girls looked like that. But this wasn't the Renaissance yet. He married her because he saw she was the future of the world.
He was crazy about her. But he never loved her. I think he was always in love with Morgan. But even if he hadn't been, there was something forbidding about her. She was this kind of sculpture. You could never imagine her in bed.
She had this way about her, she never crossed a line. Somehow she was always on the right side, without ever thinking about it.
There's a funny thing about the King Arthur stories. Have you ever noticed that he never had a child? But no one ever said anything about it? Anywhere else, somebody would have packed the lady's bags, and if she didn't take the hint, she'd've had an unfortunate accident. Somehow he let us know that it wasn't her fault. We all picked up on it. And when Lancelot made love to her, he didn't see it. Just didn't see it. It was his fault, you see. So somehow, he could still think of her as perfect.
Lancelot was a character. He was too thick to see anything more than a pretty girl. He wasn't imaginative enough to be scared of her. So she let him in.
So one day Gawain has had enough. He can't stand to see them treating Arthur that way. He and ten other guys caught Lance with Gwen, in public. Lance escaped, but she wouldn't follow. She knew everyone would forgive her for having an affair, but quit the kingdom? Her own father wouldn't forgive her for that. She had that way of knowing just how far she could go, without ever actually thinking it out.
Lance fled across the Channel. His lands were there. Arthur took his whole army after him. He didn't really want to kill him. But he was the King. He couldn't forgive his best friend for sleeping with his wife, betraying the King, anymore than he could marry his sister. Not if he wanted Camelot to stand for justice. Not if he wanted to go on being Arthur.
It was an awful war. It just went on and on. Lance wasn't even trying, but he managed to kill Gawaine anyway.
But Morgan wasn't barren. People like to say that Mordred was the product of that one night of innocent passion. But if you add up the years, it's impossible. The truth is, Arthur used to slip away to Cornwall. For a long time it was a guilty secret, and she had hopes. When she got pregnant, she was sure he would make her an honest woman. He must have thought about it. But then he married Gwen, almost as a kind of penance, and she went away to nurse her wounds, up in the wilds of Scotland.
They say she ran mad for a couple of years, naked in the woods up there, eating berries and bark and raw wild boar fat. They say she seduced Merlin there, and imprisoned him in a rock with his own magic. Somehow she raised Mordred, their son. He came to Camelot once, when he was thirteen, and they received him with all their famous courtesy. But when he said who he was, they made like he was crazy. Arthur just wouldn't come out. Guilty conscience.
So when Arthur went chasing after Lancelot, Mordred came down from Scotland with about a thousand Picts and wild Irish. He said he was there to restore all the old customs and rites. He claimed descent from all the old royal lines, Arthur's and Morgan's and others too. And he looked more like his father every day. He was a barbarian, and there were a lot of people who missed that. Soon everybody's younger brother was marching with him.
There were even rumors he'd come to an arrangement with Guenevere. He took her prisoner, but I could never tell whose idea that was.
Arthur and Lance made peace for her sake. They brought both their armies back across the channel. We met Mordred at the river Cam. We had veterans, but we'd been fighting nonstop for a month, and we'd had a nightmare of a crossing and five days' forced march. Mordred had fresh blood, and he wasn't afraid to spill it.
The King was in a strange mood that night. He didn't want to hear sad or merry songs. He just wanted me to chant the oldest stories, chronologies of long-gone kingdoms. He wanted to hear how king went down in memory. Well, he knew what was coming, everybody did. When it was all over, there wouldn't be enough fighting men left to stop the Saxons from taking over our island.
So we sat at the campfire. It was a beautiful night. White stars above. Mordred's campfires on the hillside across the Cam, red and yellow and orange. They looked like the embers of fallen stars.
I knew what he was thinking. He couldn't back down. What Mordred was doing was unthinkable. He had to punish him, just as he'd punished himself. But he'd betrayed his son, from the very beginning. But there hadn't been another way. He was reeling.
It was Hallowe'en. The last crop was in, the fields were brown. We had fought so long and hard to make Britain a land of laws, not just a region of squabbling tribes. Now we were about to destroy it. Yet we were drawn there by a kind of gravity, like a cart is drawn to the ditch.
And then there came a great hush. Like when snow falls for the first time. And then she was there. She hadn't aged a day. I guess I expected that. But she seemed tired. Like a mother who's lost her child. She seemed naked in her clothes, as if all her magic had deserted her.
I was surprised how reassuring it was to see her. She had Arthur's fire. But she seemed to come from a place. Arthur had always seemed to come from an idea.
I didn't know whether to call the guards or not. I guess I didn't.
They didn't say anything for a long time. She must have had something to say, but somehow she couldn't. She was crying. And then he was holding her. Like brother and sister, or like lovers.
Then she was singing to him, a lullaby. She was a sister, comforting her brother who skinned his knee. She was a lover, healing a wound. She was telling him there didn't have to be a battle. All he had to do was give up his pride. Mordred only wanted a father. If Arthur made him his son, he would send his army home. All Arthur had to do was admit he was human. He had made a mistake, sure, but he didn't need to punish himself any more for it, or punish us.
He started nodding, and crying too. The war was over. I could hear the ravens fluttering up into the air, leaving.
That night, I dreamed of a Saxon nation. We lived among these Germans, who built soaring buildings out of steel and glass. But we spoke their language, not ours. We were a race of drunks and braggarts. Oh, we were loved for our eloquence and our visions, which is to say, we were loved for the virtues of our vices. But we were in the gutter.
But they dreamed of us. They dreamed of Arthur. They sang songs and shaped poems and wrote stories of my King. And I even saw flickering visions of him that they wrought somehow upon a screen of silver.
And then I saw another nation. This was Saxon, too. But they had no pretty Celtic dream. Their buildings were sad and mighty, tall without soaring, broad and grim. Their songs were raucous. They had killed us off. We were gone from the land forever.
I have journeyed in nations with bad dreams.
Somehow even in my dreams I could not imagine a world in which we had beaten the Saxons. But that was the truth. Oh, we would all live to die in our beds. We might feel vaguely regretful, as if we'd been promised something and then had it taken away, like a child who had been promised a game but given a sweet. But we would live.
But our kids would be at each other's throats. We're like that.
In the morning, we all put on our armor and strapped on our swords. Fathers faced their sons across an open field. Brothers looked for each other, to try to avoid each other in the battle. But it wasn't going to be a battle. In the middle was a pavilion. Arthur and Mordred talked out there for an hour while we sweated in our boots.
Then they embraced. It was peace in our time.
I took out the viper I had caught hours before, and I let it slither out into the grass. A man not far from me saw it, and drew his sword.
You know the rest of the story. You know how the king killed his son, and how his sister took him away, dying, to the magical island of Avalon. You know he will sleep there until England shall have need of him again.
Of course you know it. It is in every footstep you take as you wander the world. It is in the stories your mother told you, in the angle a roof slopes, in the colors of smoke and the sea. It is in your dreams, the dream of the once and future king.
Copyright © 2001 by Alex Epstein
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